Jun 02 2022

Surviving a Global Catastrophe

On the most recent season of Love Death and Robots (which is excellent, btw) the first episode sees the return of the three robot explorers from previous seasons. They are looking over the remains of human civilization trying to figure out what went wrong. It’s a clever and funny commentary on some of our more irrational social ills and how fragile civilization can be. And while the apocalypse is primarily a plot device for survivalist and zombie movies, it is a serious issue and something we can plan for.

No one wants to think about the worse-case scenario, or confront it as a real possibility. There are survivalists and preppers who seem to romanticize the idea – if you put so much time and effort into preparing for something, it can be seen as anti-climactic if it never happens. But it does make sense to prepare for contingencies that you truly hope never happen. Also, preparing for a global catastrophe should in no way detract from our attempts at preventing catastrophe. It should not be a form of giving up. Rather, we’re just hedging our bets. We should spend the majority of our efforts preventing disaster, but just in case.

One example of this is the Svalbard global seed vault. In case there is some agricultural apocalypse, such as a blight, or some other collapse of global civilization, a large stock of seeds of all agriculturally important plants are kept preserved in the vault. We could use this as an emergency supply to reboot our agricultural system. Hopefully we will never need to crack open the vault (metaphorically) but in case we do, it’s nice to know that it’s there.

A recent paper (expanding on prior research) explores the practicality and utility of civilization refuges as a hedge against global catastrophe. The authors argue that we should at least think about which locations in the world would be most resilient in the face of, for example, a global pandemic. What if we have a pandemic similar to COVID except ten times or even a hundred times more deadly. COVID is now at 6.3 million global deaths. What if it were 63 million, or 630 million? These are plausible scenarios, and we would be foolish not to take reasonable steps to prevent them, mitigate them, and prepare for them. Again, prevention is the best option, but we need to prepare for failure leading to a worst-case scenario.

The authors argue that perhaps the best hedge against a global pandemic of the magnitude that would actually collapse human civilization is to have civilization refuges that are likely to survive. Island nations are perhaps the best candidates for this – New Zealand, Iceland, and Australia are optimal based on their scoring. In the more recent paper they expand this idea to include “social” islands – locations that are relatively isolated not by geography but politically. They specifically consider China, which initially did well in the pandemic through draconian measures they were able to employ because of their authoritarian government.

Specifically the authors first lay out that our strategy should be prevention first, than response if a catastrophe occurs, but finally resilience if prevention and response fail. Resilience is the ability to preserve civilization and bounce back. They argue that refuges are critical to resilience to catastrophe. These locations can be relatively protected because of their geographic and/or social isolation. Further, they would need to have several features to make them ideal as a refuge. One is to be relatively self-sufficient. A proper refuge should be able to produce its own food an energy, for example.

However, trade with outside locations is also critical. The idea of a refuge is not only that it will survive the catastrophe, whatever it is, but it will then help the rest of the world survive and build back their societies. But first the refuge must survive. The characteristics that help them do that includes not only self-sufficiency, but a robust public health infrastructure. They need to be able to resist a pandemic and to keep their population healthy.

Ideal refuges also need to have an adequate military to enforce their borders. At least during the collapse itself they would need to defend themselves from being overrun, because that would defeat the purpose of being a refuge. This is where island status is extremely helpful, but even there the ability to guard ones borders is essential.

A highly educated populace is also critical. The refuge will need knowledge and skills not only to survive, but to preserve the world’s knowledge. There are limits to the kinds of knowledge that can be stored in books and journals. There is institutional and professional knowledge that only exists in people – through experience, engaging with the scientific or professional community, and actually putting the knowledge into practice. To maintain civilization continuity, these high level educated individuals will be critical.

The next step is to think about how to optimize those locations that are already optimal refuges to make them more resilient. They could, for example, have their own mini-seed vaults, maintain stores of food and fuel to last through a catastrophe, and have contingencies in place for rapid disaster response. They could also be the location of research labs that would be involved in responding to a pandemic.

Again, it’s hard to think this way, and we would hope never to have to rely on such contingencies. But there is something to be said for making sure that New Zealand, for example, will survive a global catastrophe and have the resources to reboot human civilization if necessary.

Of course the ultimate “island” refuge would be to have a self-sustaining refuge on the Moon or on Mars. We are a long way away from that, perhaps a century or more, but eventually that will be the best way for humans to hedge against extinction. I understand the argument that we should not make this an immediate priority. Rather we should be focusing our resources on preventing catastrophe. But we can do both, actually all three – prevention, mitigation, and a refuge contingency. Island nations are out best bet this century, but we can look off world in the very long term.

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